Heroin(e) for Breakfast at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: provocative, emotional powerhouse
It’s 10:30am (really) and Tommy (Lee Bainbridge, named non-coincidentally) is dozing off on his couch in the Pleasance Dome. He looks about 30 – maybe older – but a woman of about 18 (Kiera Parker) appears and begins to engage in various – and plentiful – sexual acts with him. It’s a bit of a cheap shock as an opener, but I suppose it’s still before 11 and I’m still half-asleep (the Fringe’ll do that to you) so I appreciate the wake-up call.
It’s not long before we’re introduced to Chloe (Kirsty Anne Green), Tommy’s flatmate who’s scathing of both Edie (his school-age girlfriend who we just witnessed fucking him) and Tommy. The three sit around on the flat’s couches and argue with each other until they decide to get breakfast. On the shopping list? Orange juice with bits, yoghurt, apricot flakes and heroin.
Honestly, 10:30 is probably the earliest ‘serious’ show on the Fringe, so at the very least Heroin(e) for Breakfast is filling a niche for an adult crowd looking to start their showgoing day early. But there’s something perversely fitting about making this unsavoury descent into druggy-hell a morning experience.
When Tommy reappears, he brings the heroin(e) of the title with him – an imposing Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Amy-Lewise Spurgeon) who seduces the cast with her ‘don’t give a fuck’ attitude and proclamations of working-class revolution. Anybody who tries to resist her charm is instantly rebuked and ridiculed to the others, until they eventually comply and take the hit. The show becomes both a chronicle of addiction, and also an examination of right-wing populist rhetoric and the addictive appeal of it to the masses.
I can really understand why King Brilliant Theatre has decided to bring Heroin(e) For Breakfast back to the Fringe 10 years after its initial run. It’s message about the dangerous appeal of instant gratification, nationalism and nativism might feel slightly trite in 2019, but is completely chilling (and a little melancholy) when we realise this play was first performed in 2009. Then, it was a warning shot; now, it’s reality – Heroin(e) has even had a wardrobe update to a suit with a garish red power tie. But even more importantly, it’s a piece which examines the self-righteous, moralistic fervour which permeates most far-right discourse. What we need to understand is that hateful discourse is so often propelled by love – the far-right so often believe that they are the moral underdogs fighting against an oppressive other. So many on the left don’t understand this at all, which is one of the reasons we can’t seem to have any constructive debate – everything is a polar opposite.
Funnily enough, though, just as many anti-masculine films from the last few decades are often misinterpreted as right-wing hyper-masculine fantasies, and which are then used to fuel feelings of hate, I found it all too easy to imagine Breakfast’s message being completely lost in translation. ‘Yeah’, I heard someone say as we walked out of the theatre, ‘it’s so true that England needs to find a stronger identity and really take pride in its heritage’. The fact that this kind of mentality is exactly what has led to this political moment was an irony that could easily be lost.
What hasn’t aged well at all, though, is the relentless ‘edginess’ of the text that feels the need to provoke at every turn and which, without its progressive politics, would feel like it was written by an incel whose favourite movie was Fight Club. Of course, just like Ulster American at the Traverse last year, the play’s older audience (who the fuck else is gonna come see a show at 10:30am) lapped it up, but from my perspective the whole thing just felt a bit cheap. At one point, when a character was referred to as a ‘cancer-ridden cunt slut’ (or something to that effect) about 3 people walked out. And, look, I love profanity – I especially love how theatre can make you feel profanity more so than any other artistic medium – but you have to use it sparingly, or else it’s going to feel cheap.
Also dated is the play’s meta dynamic that makes constant use of knowing fourth-wall breaks and explicit reference to dramatic convention throughout. The last decade has seen an explosion in self-aware, self-reflexive narrative and as a result it’s hard for a script to get away with this level of structural fucking about without the play looking juvenile and obnoxious.
But, I guess, these are minor complaints compared to what is a thought-provoking, emotional powerhouse of a performance that really feels like a prestige piece of theatre. Complete with stunning song and dance numbers, ecstatic and tragic as mist swirls around the living-room set, it had the audience enraptured. And, as it draws to its conclusion – a conclusion, Tommy tells us, which we knew before we even stepped into the room – it’s a show which becomes very serious indeed. Despite their flaws – flaws which we now know would go on to contribute to our dire political situation – we really feel for these characters and most of all we understand them. Understanding is, after all, the first step to progress – 10 years later, that’s a lesson we need now more than ever.